Arresting images

indelible: Different takes on the display of the mug shot of Tucson shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner.
indelible: Different takes on the display of the mug shot of Tucson shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner.
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By Paul Farhi
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Smirking and creepy, with hollow eyes ablaze with unknowable thoughts, Jared Lee Loughner stared back at viewers and readers Tuesday for the first time since being accused of shooting 20 people in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson.

The police booking photo of the man accused of killing six and wounding 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, flashed around the world, at once haunting and fascinating. Dozens of newspapers placed the photo atop their front pages, burning Loughner's visage into the American consciousness.

In contrast to the few available photos taken before his arrest, Loughner's mug shot suggested defiance, unapologetic glee, indifference to consequence and possible derangement.

New York's tabloid newspapers combined the photo with shocking headlines to create a tableau of guilt and horror. "Face of Evil," blared the New York Daily News, which ran Loughner's image nearly life-size on its front page. The New York Post was no more subtle, playing the photo even larger beside a headline that all but convicted him: "Mad Eyes of a Killer."

Both newspapers altered the photo taken by the Pima County Sheriff's Department, turning the original green-gray background into lurid, high-contrast black.

Other papers blew the chilling image up, too. The St. Paul Pioneer Press devoted a massive chunk of its front page to it; the New York Times ran a somewhat smaller version that nonetheless dominated the page.

Several newspapers made the photo secondary to images from the scene of the shooting or a vigil Monday by congressional employees on the steps of the Capitol. The Washington Post and Washington Times treated the story this way, as did Tucson's leading newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star.

The differing play, of course, says much about a newspaper's perception of the news, as well as what its readers expect or accept. The New York tabloids, for example, sell most of their copies on newsstands, not via home subscriptions, which means they must attract attention with bold headlines and cover images.

The Washington Post, by contrast, chose to illustrate the local effects of the shooting by leading with the vigil photo. "We thought it showed the impact of this crime on Capitol Hill, where some of the victims had worked," Post editor Marcus Brauchli said. "Our community is one of the communities hard hit by this. The photo reflected that."

At one point Monday, the paper considered running a sequence of photos of Loughner, but the editors decided that the startling, police-issued photo told more of the story.

In any case, there's no denying the astonishing nature of Loughner's countenance in his arrest photo, especially considering the brutality of the crime he has been charged with. At 22, he looks much older and little like the young man depicted in a snapshot that had circulated throughout the media immediately after he was identified as a suspect. In that photo, Loughner stands on a sidewalk squinting into bright sunshine, one hand on a signboard marked "Food for Thought" and a workman's apron around his waist. He has a short haircut and is smiling innocently. The hand-lettered nametag on his T-shirt reads "JARED."

The New York Post's editor, Col Allen, said the striking nature of the arrest photo made it worth playing up. "We felt his leering grin and wild eyes revealed something of his mental state," Allan said. "The image conveyed a sense of madness."

As for altering the photo's background - a move typically frowned upon by news outlets - Allan said, "We silhouetted his image as we do with many pictures where the background is of little importance. His face is the story, not the color of the wall behind him."

New York Times editor Bill Keller said his newspaper considered "obvious photo ops," such as the congressional vigil and moment of silence at the White House, for its front-page display Tuesday. But, he said, "none of the choices were particularly engaging. They were the kind of pictures your eyes just pass over without noticing."

The Times had published a front-page photo of a vigil at a school Monday, and "we weren't thrilled with it," Keller said. When the arrest shot materialized Monday, the Times considered coupling it with another vigil photo.

Instead, an art director sketched a front page with three-column photo of Loughner at the top.

"It felt to me like the obvious right choice," he said. "This was the picture of the day. First, it was the news - our first full-face look at the accused subject in a crime that has captured the attention of the country. Second, it was intense and arresting. It invited you to look and study, and wonder. The unflinching gaze. That crooked smile. That bruise around his left eye. Just as articles are meant to be read, photos are meant to be looked at, not looked past."


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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